WASHINGTON — Eager to cut spending, the Republican-controlled House voted to end multimillion-dollar federal subsidies for presidential candidates and national political conventions on Wednesday, the first of what party leaders promised will be weekly, bite-sized bills to attack record deficits.
The 239-160 vote sent the measure — and the fate of the familiar $3 check-off box on income tax returns — to the Senate, which is controlled by the Democrats.
"Eliminating this program would save taxpayers $617 million over ten years, and would require candidates and political parties to rely on private contributions rather than tax dollars," said Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., "In times when government has no choice but to do more with less, voting to end the Presidential Election Campaign Fund should be a no brainer."
Democratic critics said it was anything but that, arguing the vote represented a step away from sweeping reforms enacted in response to the Watergate scandals of a generation ago.
Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., said that in combination with a year-old Supreme Court ruling that loosened restrictions on donations by corporations and others, the legislation would result in "less transparency and less information for the voters" at a time when the public is seeking "clean, transparent and competitive elections and campaigns."
Republicans said less than 10 percent of taxpayers choose to contribute a few dollars of their income taxes to the presidential campaign fund, and they noted repeatedly that President Barack Obama became the first candidate in history to decline federal funding for the general election in 2008.
The Republicans brought the bill to the floor as the first fruit of their Internet "You Cut" program, launched during the election campaign last year to encourage the public to identify programs for pruning or eliminating.
By coincidence, the vote occurred a few hours after the Congressional Budget Office estimated the federal deficit would climb to almost $1.5 trillion for the current fiscal year, a record. The claimed 10-year savings of $617 million pales by comparison, but Republicans are just gearing up their attack on spending.
When the House returns on Feb. 8 from a one-week break, the Republicans will begin work on legislation to keep the government in operating funds — at reduced levels — through the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30.
A debate over the size of those reductions is expected to prove contentious, both within the GOP rank and file and then once the Senate and White House become involved. The current supply of funds runs out on March 5, and Republican officials say they expect to pass a series of interim bills lasting a few days apiece to allow the government to remain in operation while a larger agreement is negotiated.
In addition to the savings claimed in Wednesday's bill, House passage demonstrated the ability of conservatives to control the flow of legislation after four years in the minority.
"I philosophically have always been opposed to taxpayer dollars being used for political advocacy of any kind," said Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., the lead sponsor of the measure.
Under the law, presidential candidates qualify for matching funds from the government once they have met certain requirements during the primary elections. In accepting the subsidies, the White House hopefuls also must agree to certain restrictions.
Presidential nominees are eligible for funds after the party political conventions as long as they do no fundraising on their own during the general election campaign. Additionally, the conventions themselves are financed through the presidential fund.
The system was put into place a generation ago as part of reforms that followed the Watergate scandals of the 1970s — illegal activities sanctioned by President Richard Nixon's re-election committee and funded by unregulated donations slushing through his campaign treasury.
While Republicans referred to Obama's decision to opt out of the system two years ago, Democrats countered that a GOP hero had benefited.
Rep. David Price, D-N.C., said that in 1976, Ronald Reagan had less than $44,000 in his campaign treasury at the end of January 1976, a tiny fraction of the amount available to then-President Gerald R. Ford. Reagan benefited from $2.2 million in public funds that helped sustain his challenge all the way to the party convention, he said.
Price and other Democrats advanced an alternative to leave the current system in place but impose fresh reporting requirements on foreign countries, companies and individuals who contribute to campaigns. It was rejected, 228-173.
Moments later, ten Democrats voted with Republicans to pass the measure.
The White House issued a statement in advance opposing the legislation, but stopped short of threatening a veto.
Even so, the measure's prospects are clouded in the Senate. Jon Summers, a spokesman for Majority Leader Harry Reid, issued a statement siding with House Democrats on the issue. "Congress should focus on improving the system so that it protects our democracy, instead of giving more and more power to special interests," he said.